Meridith Baer is barefoot, her toes sparkling with garnet polish, when she opens the gate to her canyon home in Los Angeles. Wearing a crisp white shirt and navy track pants, she leads the way through a courtyard filled with potted plants and little cement pigs (said to bring good luck when you rub their backsides). The setting exudes personality and gracious comfort, two subjects on which Baer, founder and president of a multimillion-dollar home-staging business, is an expert: Meridith Baer Home (MBH) furnishes and decorates high-end properties to make them irresistible to buyers. Baer supplies all the furnishings and rarely uses the homeowner’s belongings. MBH (meridithbaer.com) also designs and manufactures some pieces: sofas (most often white because, she says, “that color is peaceful, unifying and flexible”), drapes, artwork and accents—like the little cement pigs. “I bought one at an estate sale,” she says, “and then I had thousands made.”
Baer, 66, mixes traditional pieces with modern, European with Asian, serious with whimsical. Home buyers are often so taken with the result that they purchase the furnishings along with the property. Baer and her team of 130 employees complete their decorating makeovers in a few days, with about six people assigned to each project. Her inventory, stored in three warehouses, is worth an estimated $70 million. On average, she puts $150,000 worth of products into each home—and sometimes up to $1 million into the superluxury residences. Her staging fees, usually between $8,000 and $75,000, depend on the square footage, the neighborhood and the market (0.5 to 1 percent of list price is the industry average).
Baer started her business when she was a 50-year-old screenwriter struggling to find work. She’d taken a two-year hiatus while in a relationship with the English actor Patrick Stewart, whom she met on a blind date in 1991. “In order to be with him, I had to travel,” she says, “and you can’t have a career if you’re on the road. It was the only time in my life I’d done that, given myself away.” When the couple split, Baer, who had all but depleted her savings, returned to L.A., rented a cottage and tried to get back into the Hollywood rhythm. “But what you want to write about in your twenties and thirties is different from what you want to write about in your fifties,” she says. “I couldn’t connect to the 12-year-olds who were running the studios.”
When the muse was elusive, she distracted herself by gardening and decorating. “I kept buying more and more pots so I could have more and more plants,” she says. “Soon I had 250, inside and out. The cottage became prettier and prettier.” In January 1998, her landlord dropped in for a visit and was so impressed with the improvements that he decided he could make good money if he sold the property. Baer got the boot.
Where to put the plants? She asked a friend who had an empty spec house on the market if she could arrange them in the courtyard. She moved in all her furniture, too: “It’ll show lifestyle.” The house sold in a few days—for $500,000 over the asking price, which was upwards of $3 million. The agents for both the buyer and the seller asked Baer if she could perform more of her magic on other properties. “Sure,” she said, “if you pay me and let me live there while the house is on the market.” They agreed.
Baer pulled in $5,000 for her first gig, then started upping her fees. After completing her third installation, she knew she’d found her new career. Strictly on word of mouth, she went from staging one house at a time to doing two, then five, making $10,000 to $20,000 on each. In
2000, when she did 15 houses and her company was worth nearly $2 million, “I thought I had it made in the shade,” she says.